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Jewing It Wrong

lets go somewhere and judge people

In the lead-up to Passover last month, as always, I ended up in unexpected conversations with fellow Jews based around their assumptions about me because I wear a full-time kippah. I sometimes think that in 2014 people don’t need to be reminded that we all–Jew and non-Jew–come in a variety of varieties. We’re are such a mashed-up society these days, it’s hard for me to understand why anyone still persists in assuming that just because someone does or doesn’t dress a certain way, it’s a shortcut to knowing their belief system.

Of course, that isn’t the case. We all need reminding all the time to stop making assumptions about the people with whom we share the shechina-infused world around us. So forgive me, but after the beginning paragraph in this blog post, I’m a hypocrite in my sentiments.

I have a friendly, open-minded charedi penpal in Jerusalem. The warmest personal welcomes I ever receive from fellow Jews often from Orthodox acquaintances who don’t miss a beat in discussing our differing levels of observance–sometimes admitting that in some things, I’m more strident than they are. And I know Jews whose dress and last names would never suggest their Yiddishkeit who are more observant than I am.

Yet even I see a woman dressed modestly or a man with a black kippah and payes and have a momentary urge of wondering if we would measure up as “valid” Jews in each others’ eyes.

Shortly before Passover, I ran into a high-powered attorney in an elevator with whom I’ve shared a passing acquaintance. She was amazed I was cooking for Passover, and told me with a sense of shame in her voice, “I know you probably won’t approve, but I’m going to my daughter’s later that week and we’re roasting a pig.”

At that moment, I realized why our verbal exchanges had always been so brief. I had thought it was me. I had always felt a bit intimidated by her short tales of famous (and crazy) clients. In reality, all along, she had felt intimated by me. With my yarmulke on my head and her married head so clearly bare of a head covering, she thought I was judging her Jewishness. “I don’t keep kosher,” I told her. “But you’re wearing a hat,” she said. “I roll my own Jew, ” I responded.

Things went south from there. Rare, seemingly, is the fellow Jew content to feel a sense of equality with a Jew with a different worldview. As she exited the elevator, she said with an air of superiority, “Oh well, then. I guess as long as it works for you it’s still good.” Meaning: I don’t think I’m Jewish enough to make the kind of decision you’ve made regarding your level of observance, but that fact that you made it makes me think you’re not as Jewish as I am, so neener-neener.

Remember what Felix Unger said happens when we assume things? Two people trading assness in an elevator is the nut of the above vignette.

Much nicer was the thing that happened at a midday reception at work on Monday. I was wearing my kippah as always. As lunch was served, A very high-level, Jewish leader of a national real estate firm launched himself at my seat, put his hand on my shoulder, and whispered earnestly in my ear, “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay with the food. Do you need a kosher option? We can have them bring you something else. I know sometimes needs like that get ignored at events like this. Is everything alright?”

I thanked him, told him I don’t keep kosher, and immediately let him know how touched I felt my his honest sense of concern. Then I told everybody else I ran into for the rest of the day. His thoughtfulness and open-mindedness at my answer was a great entree into discussing the work at hand, our mutual New York City origins, and the many ways there are to be validly Jewish in this world.

Or validly human, for that matter. Next time you see a stranger in our out of a head covering, wearing or bereft of religious garb of all flavors, it might be worth asking yourself if they would be able to tell your life story down to the way you get down (or not) with God. Because your answer about them would be exactly the same. Sure, you can take the easy way out and judge anyway.

Or you can open your mind, connect with them in all their similar and differing ways, and help heal the world. A lesson from Marty Stern, my hero this week. May we all move further and further away from the assumptions in our heads that divide us, and closer to each other in our hearts.

And if that’s not the reason we’re here, I’ll eat my kippah, I will.

Categories: JEWISH OBSERVANCE

Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion

Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

6 replies

  1. Michael, I just want to tell you that your posts here have been absolutely essential to my own understanding of my conversion process. This one is no different. Due to health reasons, I can’t keep kosher, which is one of the main reasons why I’m going to be converting Reform instead of Conservative. But I intend to wear a kippah as much as possible once my conversion is complete, and be as observant as I can, so I expect I’ll have this conversation with people many times. If someone asks me why I don’t keep kosher, I had planned to answer “pikuach nefesh – I have health issues that don’t allow me to do so.” But the fact is, your post just showed me that the why is irrelevant. It’s between me and HaShem, and it’s not their business.

    I don’t expect to run into this issues as much as you have, because there’s not as large of a Jewish presence here in Los Angeles as there is in Chicago or New York, but reading how you’ve handled certain bumps in the road along the way has really, really helped me look at the bumps in my own road. Thank you.

    1. I’m honored that my blog has had meaning for you. Actually, the Los Angeles area has double the Jewish population that the Chicago area has (around 500,000 people versus around 250,000 people). So you’re in good stead there! (And hopefully we will be when Ryan and I move to L.A. next year!) I know the old line is that L.A. Jews live everywhere and nowhere, since the community is so spread out. But I can tell you in Chicago, unless you’re in the north suburbs, being publicly Jewish is still seen as a bit out of the ordinary. (Very unlike my hometown of NYC). I wish you success with all the bumps in the road, and Shabbat Shalom as well 🙂

  2. I have always felt very welcome on the odd occasions I have attended our Orthodox synagogue (though I converted Reform, which I don’t make an issue of, but I always answer honestly about if asked); the only times I have attended are one Shabbos Shacharit service (which I may repeat soon), and the Yom Ha’Atzmaut dinners which the (non-denominational) Jewish Rep Council hosts at the Orthodox shul.

    I’m surprised your first acquaintance, though, argued with your stance since any photo/video of you I’ve ever seen doesn’t have you wearing a suit – have you started wearing one? I always wear kippot, and often (not always) wear suits (though not always black, and very often not white or blue shirts even when I do wear black). I don’t keep kosher, though I am pescetarian, and even on this issue there is disagreement: some Orthodox rabbis will apparently insist that vegetarian converts eat meat on Shabbos, but Jonathan Sacks, the last UK Chief Rabbi, is vegetarian. Long story short, I completely agree one shouldn’t judge by appearances.

    1. Any photo/video of me? Stalker! SECURITY!! 😉

      It has been my experience in Chicago (I can’t speak for NYC since during my time there I was not yet Jewish) that the more secular a fellow Jew is, the larger are the assumptions that they make about my level and style of observance. I often think it stems from not truly, fundamentally believing that they are qualified to make their own Jewish–or more to the point, religious–decisions for themselves. So they concede the definition of what it means to be religious to other Jews who might (or might not) judge them, and by dint of doing so completely disempower themselves. It’s self-fulfilling in a really sad way.

    1. Yes, I think it’s probably universal in the West (including Israel); my alma mater’s best German lecturer, who is (non-religious) Jewish, couldn’t believe I’d actually do such a thing as convert to Judaism. To be fair, his parents were Holocaust refugees, so he probably couldn’t understand why anyone would potentially put themselves in a position where they might be herded into a camp and gassed. Of course, plenty people (Jewish or otherwise) wouldn’t understand why a Jew would make a career out of speaking and teaching German… Maybe if I’d become Jewish first, I wouldn’t have studied it, either. (If for this reason, that would have been a mistake.)

      With regards to observance, I believe it has a lot to with secularisation; those Jews who are religious (even the Orthodox ones) are used to having to explain themselves in today’s world, and used to meeting people whose level of observance is either “greater” or “lesser” than theirs; really, even Orthodox converts (especially in the States, I gather) aren’t going to be carbon copies of each other in terms of their observance. Secularists, OTOH, dismiss religion/observance/tradition out of hand. Religion, to them, is old hat. It is superstitious. It is bunk. Anyone who is religious is either a cretin, or a nutter, or a fool. I maintain that this forms the core of their “faith”; the more they deny it, the more I think I’m on to something.

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